on (tough) decision making

Today at my drop in time I got snarled at by a student. She is an older woman [in her 70’s but her Ebay profile says she’s 59] who got a new-to-her laptop running Windows 98 which she is learning to use with her digital camera. I’ve been trying to nudge her towards newer technology but she’s tight with money and so we persevere with what she has. She forgets things and so every time I show her how to, for example, move all the images off of her calendar, we have to write it down on a piece of paper. She almost always loses the piece of paper, so we go over it again. She always asks me how I’m doing, listens to the answer, and sometimes brings things in for me: an odd bit of jewlery; a tupperware container full of grapes; an adjustable wrench.

She talks to herself while she works. It’s very distracting to me and I’ve tried to suck it up. It’s a big lab and usually we can spread out, but people have been complaining that it’s tough for them to work with her always muttering. I’ve asked her to stop and she sort of waves her hand at me, claims she’s not talking, and usually quiets down. Today, I asked her several times and the last time she just snapped “Why should I have to be quiet when you’re talking to everyone too? I’m just whispering over here, hardly talking at all, you should get cotton for your ears if it bothers you so much!” I was quiet, and went to talk to her later, explained that there were other people besides me who were distracted, and gave her a few options: move to a far corner of the lab, keep her voice down so that it doesn’t distract people, work from home and interact with me via email. She didn’t like any of these choices much, but that’s what the choices are unless we can think of better ones. I’m not sure me playing Iron&Wine at high volumes would help, but it might not hurt….

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I read T. Scott’s post about decision making and what it means to be a manager. While of course we’d like to be able to please everyone with the acute insight of our decision-making capability, sometimes this is just not going to work. Sometimes two positions conflict absolutely, and your job as a manager is to make a choice, a choice that will piss someone off.

I think of this in terms of the signs in the library that so many people have Flickred. While I appreciate that it’s time to put the shushing librarian image to bed, we still have to have a response to people who show up at the library with an expectation of quiet. If the library isn’t quiet anymore, we need to communicate that, not just say “thanks for your feedback” and hope that person doesn’t complain to us anymore. If people on cell phones are annoying other people, we need to make a choice, not just expect the problem to go away with the one loud talker. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have quiet spaces in the library, or no cell phone spaces in the library, or “this is not a good place for your soda” places in the library. Usually our libraries are big enough that we can have those spaces as well as a noisy space, and a phone-talking space, and a soda drinking space. But if we can’t, if we have to make a choice, I would hope that we could make that choice openly and transparently and clearly. Every space can’t be everything to everyone. Good management is about making and communicating decisions about resources and priorities.

[Y]ou should assume that every decision will be criticized and misunderstood. This is an aspect of change management that I haven’t seen discussed much in the libraryland blogs. I believe in having as open, transparent and participative a decision-making process as possible. I believe in consensus building. But “consensus” doesn’t imply unanimity of opinion. The quest for complete agreement, the desire to adjust to everybody’s concerns in making decisions can paralyze an organization.

5 comments for “on (tough) decision making

  1. 03Aug06 at 5:08

    [this is good]
    Let’s see fewer “bad signs” on Flickr and more “good signs.” I like Monsieur Silence, myself.

  2. 04Aug06 at 11:54

    We did a library survey in the spring and got some of those “positions [that] conflict absolutely”. Some people wanted us to tell everyone else to shut up and some wanted us to allow more talk, especially for study groups. We do have multiple floors, so we could do a “quiet floor”, but I suspect the fighting point would be the main computer area–groups want to work together and individuals want to work in peace. Both are perfectly legimate needs, but can’t be met in the same space.

  3. EH
    04Aug06 at 12:01

    We have started the process of designated the odd floors of our building as “quiet floors” and the even floors as “collaborative learning”/”group study” (i.e., noisy) floors. This decision was made after reviewing a seating survey from last fall.

  4. 04Aug06 at 7:42

    Agreed. Thank you for being willing to post this discussion. I, too, am frustrated by the stereotype of the shushing librarian, but I proudly hang my Nancy Pearl action figure in my home office (signed, of course), much to the chagrin of dear and respected colleagues. Shush can mean lots of things. Be quiet cuz we said so? Or… please keep it down so others may work? Or, to me, listen, you might learn something.

    For my part I really DO need some quiet down time to get things done. And call me ole fashioned but the library, cybrary, or combo tends to hold a “thinker’s” quality, a formality I don’t find at home, that draws me in. I assume others feel this way, too, and it is fair to implement quiet spaces, quiet hours, whatever works, if patrons want them and resources allow. But next is somehow protecting those spaces by being able to make the tough decisions. “Signs” don’t work for everything…

    Bringing me to my next point. Yes Steve Lawson! Let’s see some positive signs on that flickr initiative! I grow tired of the sense of “gotcha” of it. Let’s gotcha some who are doing right, so others may learn.

  5. 05Aug06 at 1:03

    Ah, the library/cell phone dilemma… Generally speaking, if we don’t police it (cell phone use), other customers complain about it. We put up signs; ignored/overlooked by those who are bound and determined to use their phones anyhow. Most people are considerate…turn it off, put it on “vibrate” or whatever. For those who aren’t…well, I don’t like being “the cell phone monitor,” but I’m old enough and cranky enough that I will step in and enforce common courtesy. Continues to amaze me how loudly some people talk on these things — and fail to see that it might be a problem for other folks.

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